Huichol Girl Laughing in hut window

Journey into the Huichol Sierra

Chronicles of the Spring Ceremony by Nico Secunda

We made it home! After a beautiful and empowering journey to the Huichol in Mexico, we arrived back to our home in Santa Cruz, California last night. My father and I, along with a small group of long-time students, partook in the spring ceremony to honor Tate-Urianaka (Mother Earth) as she awakens from her winter slumber.

Hopefully you received my previous message about the ceremony, which I was able to send out from the road just in the nick of time before losing our link to the modern world through cellular reception. Thank you to all of you, for keeping us in your thoughts and prayers. Your support means a lot and could be felt throughout our journey.

I always look forward to crossing that invisible boundary between the modern world and the ancient Huichol landscape. Watching the bars on the cell phone disappear brings a wonderful feeling. A weight is lifted. The obligations of modern life, which can at times steal our time and distract us from the more meaningful endeavors of the spirit, are switched off.

Crossing that invisible border we enter into the Huichol territory. We continue through rolling hills of mango and papaya trees, then up the incline of switchbacks into the mountains of the Sierra Madre, eventually reaching the end of the road. Here, we must transition from roadway to waterway, in order to press on deeper into the Huichol territory.

We made it home! After a beautiful and empowering journey to the Huichol in Mexico, we arrived back to our home in Santa Cruz, California last night. My fat

One of Don José’s sons is awaiting our arrival at the river. He greets us and along with a few other Huichol men, we load into three boats and push off to make our way upriver. The moist air kisses our cheeks as the boats head against the current.

As the sun sets behind us, we reach a familiar bend in the river and finally the village comes into view. This is a sight I have seen countless times and once again I am filled with a sense of returning home. I grew up coming here time after time and have a deep gratitude for the connection to this place that is now strongly rooted within me. The boats scrape onto the banks and the young Huichol men on the bow jump onto the moist soil to tie up to large rocks half submerged in the water. One by one, we all step ashore.

Now, the last leg of the journey to reach the village. In single file, we follow the steep winding trail to the uppermost plateau perched on the hillside overlooking the river and rugged peaks that reach skyward in the distance. “Keiaku!” (Hello) and “Buenas Tardes,” young children greet us as they run down the trail to help carry our mountain of bags filled with gifts. When we reach the upper village, we walk through the gate at the village entrance and see the fire in the center burning like a beacon to which we have been summoned.

We make our way around the fire, greeting our Huichol family and the elder shaman who, at over ninety years old, will be leading the ceremony. People from numerous villages have come to take part. The firewood has been gathered. The food offerings are prepared. Candles in the temple are lit, and the altar in front of the fire laid out. Chairs are placed for the shamans, and now we are ready for the ceremony to begin… (end of part 1 – check back soon for the second installment of this chronicle)

Tahiti - photo by Mark Allen Ironman Triathlon World Champion

Tahiti – Realizing a Childhood Dream

In my early teens, I saw a group of photos from Tahiti. They showed deeply contoured lush island peaks surrounded by emerald blue ocean lagoons. It was the South Pacific, French Polynesia; the very islands that some say their Hawaiian neighbors originated from, traveling across vast expanses of ocean from one paradise to another. In those first moments lost in the pictures in the magazine in front of me, I hoped that some day I’d be able to make the journey to Tahiti to see such amazing beauty with my own eyes.

But the years ticked away, one decade then another. Life has its own timeline, and although I’d had a number of opportunities to go there over the years, it just never panned out. Fortunately, the window opened this year and I boarded an Air Tahiti Nui plane bound for Papeete, the largest city in the islands and the capital of Tahiti. Unfortunately the flight landed well past sunset, forcing me to wait another night on top of the 40+ years I’d already spent dreaming of seeing the islands first hand.

Tahiti Sunset Clouds - photo by Mark Allen Ironman

Sunset in Tahiti • photo by Mark Allen

It was worth the wait. Sunrise was a flush pink and golden sky that met the powdery blue ocean. Moorea in the near distance had each of its sharp jungle-covered peaks capped in cottony clouds. How could it get any better!

I soaked it in, way in. The experience was new. The process was familiar. You see as a young boy I had another dream, which was to find a teacher, a real teacher. Those weren’t quite the words I had for it at the time, but it was a yearning to be guided and learn from someone who knows the workings of the universe beyond the ordinary constraints of life. Someone who could help me connect with the greatness of all life in a way that only a person who had dedicated their life to knowing the Great Spirit could bring. That dream was answered twenty-five years ago when I met Brant Secunda in Mexico and began to study with him.

Tahiti Intense Clouds - photo by Mark Allen Ironman

Intense Cloudy Sky in Tahiti • photo by Mark Allen

 

Over the past two and a half decades I’ve heard him emphasize again and again that shamanism is about developing a relationship with nature: with the light, the plants and rocks, the trees and flowers and all the animals, and Mother Earth.

In those first moments breathing in the beauty all around me in Tahiti I realized this is what I do every day. All around me no matter where I am, there is some aspect of nature that I become aware of; that I connect with, that I can draw perspective from and be reminded of how I’m a part of nature’s greatness. It takes away isolation, stress; it resets my trust in the bigger picture of life. It’s priceless, and I realized that although I’d waited over forty years to experience the beauty of Tahiti, that I’d been experiencing beauty in a deep and profound way with Brant and through his teachings since 1990.

He speaks about how a flower is no more or less important than a rock, and that a lake or ocean is no more or less important than a mountain peak or vast endless grasslands. I’m blessed to make it to Tahiti. I’m also blessed to be seeing every day as a chance to experience the “Tahiti” in my own backyard.

Brant Secunda with Don José Matsuwa and Doña Josefa Medrano

Journey into Healing

In 1970 at 18 years old, intrigued by a book of Carlos Castenada. I left my hometown in New Jersey and set out on a journey to Ixtlan as a spiritual tourist in search of Don Juan. En route, I met a Huichol schoolteacher, who gave me the name of his family’s village – a five day walk away.

Soon, I found myself hiking through the Sierra Madre Mountains, in search of the mysterious Huichol Indians. With the sun blazing down on me, I followed a narrow deer trail hoping I was still heading in the right direction. The Mexican towns, along with the rest of the modern world quickly faded behind me.

The Brazil Trees and the thick underbrush enveloped me, as I continued deeper into the Sierra. After three days and no sign of any village, I found myself hopelessly lost. I had drunk my last sip of water and tried to calm the panic rising inside of me. Pressing on in hope of finding the village, dehydration and sun exposure overtook me. The trees around me began spinning. I collapsed, sinking into unconsciousness, as feelings of disgust, anger and finally fear overtook me.

As I lay dying on the parched earth, I dreamt of circles full of light spinning in front of me. Visions of deer and an old indigenous man appeared. Suddenly, cold water hit my face. Startled into consciousness, my beautiful dreams and visions faded. Slowly opening my eyes, above me loomed the dark faces of three Indians. They told me in Spanish of an old shaman in their Huichol village who had dreamt I was dying at this spot and sent them to save me two days earlier.

Still weak, I was led through the mountains to a clearing with mud and stick huts, the smell of tortillas cooking and sounds of children playing. Amazed at this scene and that I was alive; I was taken to their shaman Don Juan (of the same name, but not the one of Castenada fame). I remained there for two weeks. The people told me of another shaman, Don José Matsuwa, in a nearby village who had also dreamt of me: He summoned me to his rancho. The same three Indians who had originally saved me led me to his hut.

Shortly after meeting Don José I was put in a cave for five days and five nights with no food or water. I was told this was my initiation. If I lived, I would continue as an apprentice to this renowned shaman and healer.

12 years later I completed my apprenticeship. I had been adopted as Don José’s grandson. He had taught me the ancient wisdom of healing and ceremony and we had become close companions on the path of the shaman. Following my training, I was sent back to the modern world, to help share the secrets of the Huichol, to heal those in need and to conduct ceremonies to bring balance to the Earth.

Since that time I have been traveling the world, striving to fulfill the vision of my teacher. Thousands of people have come to me for healing. From every corner of the globe and from all walks of life. Many of them have tried everything western medicine has to offer before finally resorting to shamanic healing. It seems to me that people today are more in need of healing than ever before.

Personal Stories of Healing • from Marilyn Del Duca

I was diagnosed with Lyme’s disease, and antibiotics were not helping.
I went to Brant to ask for help.  He did a series of healings for me that
healed the Lyme’s with no residual effects.  Years later when I suffered a
bad fall and tore my MCL, his healings made it possible for me to avoid
surgery.  These are just two of the ways his healings have  helped me over
the years.

Another time, my niece was trying to get pregnant.  I told her not to worry – if she wasn’t pregnant by the following June, I would take her to meet Brant at the Summer Solstice, as I knew he had good luck with women’s issues.  He did a fertility healing for her, and she was pregnant within a month.  Her first baby was born the following April, and she had a second baby 20 months later, blessing me with two beautiful great-nieces.

Shamanic healing searches out the root of illness. Often a person’s ailment stems from something much deeper than what is felt on the surface. This is common with psychological and spiritual trauma, but also with physical ailments. The shaman strives to find the source of the illness and to extract it from the individual.

For many, shamanic healing may seem far-fetched or simply archaic; however, I have witnessed time and again its relevance for those very people who don’t even believe in it. I have had numerous people come to me after trying “everything else” and searching desperately for healing. One such man came to my office in Santa Cruz, California for a healing over 15 years ago. As soon as I met him, he asked if he needed to believe in the shamanic healing I was about to conduct. I said “no” and he replied, “Good, because I don’t.” His doctors had given him two weeks to live with his pancreatic cancer. He ended up in remission and lived another ten years.

I am so grateful for my journey to the Huichol. I am thankful for the countless healings I witnessed while studying with Don José, which allowed me to believe. I remember one of the first things he told me. He said, “Until you learn to believe, you will never really learn.”

You can be told the earth is sacred or that shamans can dream of the future or heal terrible diseases, but until you experience it yourself, you can never fully believe. Experience is one of our greatest teachers.

Brant Secunda blessing with macaw fan

SHAMANISM: The Healing Journey of the Heart

Shamans throughout the world, from Tibet and Mongolia to the Americas, have been involved in healing for thousands of years, dating back to Paleolithic times. An integral part of this healing tradition are its perspectives, both personal and at the same time planetary.

Shamanism, perhaps as old as consciousness itself, is an ancient healing tradition that has, throughout the ages, reflected the changing cultures of the surrounding world.

The shamanic tradition involves healing through personal transformation as well as healing our family, community and environment. Central to this healing tradition is the belief that we must heal and honor our mother the earth, who is viewed as a living, conscious organism. This sacred female Goddess, the earth, who nourishes our very existence, must also nourished with such prayers and ceremonies, say shamans.

I have studied and practiced shamanism for over 40 years, completing a lengthy apprenticeship with Don José Rios (Matsuwa), a 110 year old Huichol Indian shaman-healer. The Huichol of Mexico are said to be the last tribe of

North America to have maintained their pre-Columbian traditions, little disturbed by colonialization and Christianization until very recently. I feel fortunate for having been able to study with such an amazing group of people.

As I was taught by the Huichol, healing is a way of life; a way of being that permeates our very existence. Healing is something to be practiced constantly, not just when we are ill. Moreover, the shamanic tradition of healing does not limit itself to healing of the physical body, but rather involves the maintenance of the harmony and balance of the universe. We must consciously make contact with all life, see our life in all things, so that life and health are embedded within our hearts that so need to be nourished and cared for.

Shamanism focuses on all life as being majestically and mysteriously interrelated and sacred. Plants, rocks, two- and four-legged creatures all have personal identities with whom the shaman develop a personal relationship. When the shaman prays, he prays not only for himself but also for his sacred relatives: our mother the earth, our father the sun, our grandfather and giver of light the fire, our grandmothers the eagle and the winged ones. Don José often told me never to forget that my relatives are the earth, sky, rivers, birds, animals, stones, gems, mountains, caves, springs and lakes. Upon our first meeting Don José spoke of our mother the earth, who nourishes and speaks to our heart. The shaman learns to listen with his heart as well as his ears, and thus shamanism, as a healing art, makes a person whole and complete, a whole system integrated fully to the surrounding environment.

According to various shamanic mythologies, there was a time when paradise existed and all life was one. For example, fire communicated freely with people. Now this is lost and for this reason the shaman acts as a bridge, drawing upon lost lines of communication with all life that surrounds him both visibly and invisibly.

Shamanism as a healing art seeks to maintain or restore balance, both for the individual and for the planet. All life is ultimately one, and the responsibility of a shaman is to bring the forces of balance, harmony and intuition into resonance with one another. One can say if we celebrate our life as one with our environment, our environment will thus give thanks to us with the proper amount of sunlight and rainfall. Shamans themselves act as intermediaries between people and all other life forms, the gods and goddesses and all creatures who co-inhabit the earth. Shamans also have the ability to transform themselves into a spirit entity almost as if they had the key to the process of metamorphosis. Thus the role of a shaman has been vital to the community in which he lives, as he acts as a vital link to the surrounding world.

Embedded within the tradition of shamanism and healing is the technique of achieving ecstasy. Ecstasy is sought by shamans in order to experience unity with all things. The forum used for the attainment of ecstasy is ceremonial celebration, which utilizes ancient forms of ceremony and ritual. The Huichol perform ceremonies throughout the year to maintain the delicate balance of our environment, of our universe, so that one may know their heart and feel the ecstatic joy that emanates from our very being. The “Dance Of The Deer”, a most beautiful and intense sacred dance, of the Huichol, is employed so that the participants of the ceremonies may enter into a trance state of joy and ecstasy. The shaman and his assistants chant the ancient songs as the others dance about them. All enter together as one heart into a sacred doorway, known to the Huichol as “Nierika”, face of the divine, or link to other realms of consciousness and being. At ceremonies, the Huichol shaman calls upon his ally or spirit helper, Kauyumari, the magical deer spirit person, to assist him in the task of transporting the ceremonial participants thorough the nierika (doorway), into the realm of ecstatic joy and harmony. The dancers also assist the shaman as they too, like the deer, become messengers of the gods.

Through ceremony, participants allow themselves to be transformed, renewed and life force itself is transmitted in a sacred manner. The shaman and participants in the ceremony are provided a medium for reaching the realm on the gods and the heart source of life itself.

At the same, shamanism involves what is often seen as the more mundane and down-to-earth aspects of the shaman’s day- to-day life. Students of shamanism must endure many hardships and show much strength, both inner and outer. Pilgrimages to “places of power”, (caves, springs, oceans, mountain tops), form an important aspect of shamanic healing, as pilgrims are said to receive power, (including power to dream) and many blessings for having arrived at such places. Many Huichol shamans, as well as many shamans from other cultures, are farmers and, working daily with the earth, they develop a special relationship with the earth, which they believe to be their mother.

The wisdom of ceremonial celebration, pilgrimages to sacred spots and proper daily living to achieve balance among ourselves as human beings and our environment has been lost to many people of the modern world. For this reason Don José, an incredible 103-year-old master of shamanism adopted me as his grandson and trained me in the ancient art of shamanism and healing. “You are an educated person who knows and understands your world”, he told me. “Now you will know our world too and use the two so that modern people may once again know what we have tried never to forget. There is a balance between our two worlds, grandson: that’s the way it is.”

“Is your heart happy?” Don José often asks the children at his rancho in the Mexican Sierra. “Dance with all your heart. We are following the example of the gods and the way they have taught to us. This is our life.”

Mt. Shasta Pond Sunset

Mount Shasta Journey

Looking ahead, I see a journey to Mount Shasta. A beautiful, magical place which over the years has brought much power, healing, and balance to my life. Although this will be my 16th consecutive year it is, I hope, as if I am going for the first time. I know the area and places we will be going, I know how to get there, and have seen the view for many years, but I like to always go “as if” it is my first time. This allows my heart to see things in a way I may never have seen them before. It allows my heart to be open to what the mountain wants to show me, to what the spirits of the sacred land want me to see and learn. It allows for new experiences. The mountain has sight, it can hear, it has power and heart that deeply touches my soul and transforms what needs changing.I look forward to this journey every year. I feel I begin to prepare at the end of one years’ journey for the next which is still a year away.

This year is centered on healing for my heart and kupuri. I have been preparing by praying to the mountain, visualizing the mountain, and trying to dream of the land I will be sleeping on for 9 days. With only several weeks to go before taking off, I continue to focus on what need to be done before I leave. This becomes easier as I know that soon I will see the mountain, soon I will sleep on the earth listening to the sound of the water putting me to sleep at night. Soon I will sit before the fire, my grandfather, and speak to him with my heart. Soon I will make beautiful prayers with my family, friends, and community for the things that are most important in life.

Soon.

Santa Cruz Harbor Ocean Sunset

Softening at the Ocean

I am at home and I feel a certain restlessness. It is one I am not unfamiliar with, it is the feel of the ocean telling me that I need to come and sit with her for awhile. At first I resist, I have this or that to do, but in the end I concede and allow my heart to drawn to her shore. As I approach, the sound beckons me to come closer. I sit down on the sand giving myself a few minutes to transition from one world to another. The endless ebb and flow of the tide on the shoreline slowly seeps in. I feel my self slowly relaxing, letting go of what feels like a hardened thin crust of clay I have created to protect me from certain aspects of our modern world. I have not created it consciously, but almost as impulse or reaction by my body to the constant inundation of sounds, sights, and pace of modern living.

Grandmother sea, tate haramara, sends her beauty and love to me the instant I sit down. I can feel that thin layer softening, being melted by her continual beauty. I feel more relaxed. I feel my mind slow. I feel my heart opening to receive what she offers. I close my eyes trying to deepen my connection. The sound of the wind, the sound of the seagulls, pelicans, cormorants, and sandpipers. The sound of each wave breaking, the rush of the water up the sand and then racing to return to the ocean. There are other background noises, but I close them out. I focus just on the sound of the water until that is all I can hear. I can feel my heart trying to catch and hold onto anything my spiritual grandmother has to say and is willing to send my way.

As I rise and prepare to leave, once again I feel that tugging and a small sadness in my heart. I do not want to leave. I tell my grandmother I will miss her, I will pray to her, I will imagine her until I return again. As I walk away, I thank her for the healing I feel.

Rose Petal Jam

Getting Back to the Basics

In this modern world of instant gratification, immediate messages, fast food, faster internet, etc., I find myself taking a step back. It seems to me that we try to find ways of cheating for a brighter bright, a whiter white, an oxy clean, a new chemical to treat wrinkles, depression, weight loss, impotence, lack of good digestion… …the list goes on for what seems an eternity. We want a quick fix. We want “more time”.

More time for what?

To pursue our spiritual endeavors? Are instant mashed potatoes really going to help me have the time to be a better person? Or, taking the time to work the land in prayer, feel the earth, dig the hole, plant the potato, nurture the plant, watch it grow patiently, give thanks as you harvest and clean, cook, serve, and feel the kupuri (life-force) and love from the gods as you take in the potato is going to serve me better? Knowing that the process was a shamanic experience and being aware of it, is a choice I have made.

People ask me why do I make my own laundry soap and bread from scratch and cook everything from scratch? Well, the answer is for the journey.

Last year I made rose petal jam. The easy recipe I found called for harvesting the rose petals and placing them in the food processor to grind them down in about three seconds. Another recipe was in a traditional style that called for rolling the rose petals between your hand to crush each one and release it’s flavor. I chose the longer version, which took about an hour. That hour was wonderful! There was something very meditative about it and I could feel the love and had time to give thanks for each rose petal as I worked. This is my therapy.

OakTree

Springtime Gratitude

SPRINGTIME RENEWAL

a poem by Terri Anderson

Shaman sings creation songs
Softly calls to other side
Chants to earth mysterious words
Corn sprouts, grows though mother’s toes
Roots grasp hold, white veins alive
Feed young plant, green stalk to thrive
And now to pass new life along
Each generation must learn the song

[divider]

There is some truth in the old saying “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. We are wired to notice what is not working or broken because there is so much that is always working to sustain us. Our drought in California this year made me very aware of how quickly life can go awry, of how we count on nature’s balance. I was acutely aware of the trees and plants suffering all around me. I noticed whole mountain sides turning brown with dead or dying pines and cedars. Thousands of heritage oaks did not survive the summer heat and lack of rain. In January the earth was dusty and hard. Shamanism trains us to wake up, to become more aware and sensitive to our surroundings . For me this heightened sensitivity was painful as I felt the plants suffer, watched deer grow thin from lack of grass. I felt fear rise for the summer ahead, fires, no grass for the animals.

When I caught myself thinking negative thoughts I remembered to trust in the Gods. One of the basic prerequisites for shamanism is belief in the Gods, to trust and have faith. Day after day I prayed to Takutsi-Nakawei (Grandmother Growth) for rain. Even though we were experiencing record drought, I did not give up on her. I kept praying. Brant did ceremonies for the rain too. Finally in February, the rains came.

I felt a tremendous sense of relief, a huge sigh from the earth, plants, and animals, as if a pent up tension had been released. The waters were flowing once again. I felt the earth soften and watched beauty emerge from our loving earth mother. Spring warmth brought forward the green. So many shades of greens, grasses, trees and shrubs, all humming with growth and vitality.

Lack made me very aware and grateful. On daily walks in the woods I felt held by the greens. As I breathed in, my heart was filled with green healing color.

I received many gifts from the drought. My awareness was expanded and heightened. Each spring is a miracle of renewal, but this year I felt more present and at times could almost hear the grass grow.

I felt empowered by my prayers, as if maybe I had some small part in the return of the rain, and an increase in gratitude to be alive. Gratitude to Grandmother Growth for beauty and fertility. Gratitude to be able to pray to the fire, and gratitude for my teacher, his courage and wisdom, for the good luck of finding this beautiful Huichol tradition.

Brant Secunda with Huichol

Journey to the Heart

“Is your heart happy?” Don José asks the children at his rancho. “Dance with all your heart. We are following the example of the gods and the way they have taught to us. This is our life.”

Shamans throughout the world, from Tibet and Mongolia to the Americas, have been involved in healing for thousands of years, dating back to Paleolithic times. Perhaps as old as consciousness itself, shamanism is an ancient healing tradition that has reflected the changing cultures of the surrounding world throughout the ages.

The shamanic tradition involves healing through personal transformation as well as healing our family, community and environment. Central to this healing tradition is the belief that we must heal and honor our mother the earth, who is viewed as a living, conscious organism. Shamans say this sacred female Goddess, the earth, who nourishes our very existence, must also be nourished with our prayers and ceremonies.

The Huichols of Mexico are said to be the last tribe in North America to have maintained their pre-Columbian traditions, little disturbed by colonialization and Christianization until very recently. I feel fortunate for having been able to study with such an amazing group of people, as an apprentice for over a decade with Don José Matsuwa, a Huichol Indian shaman-healer who lived to the age of 110.

The Huichols taught me that healing is a way of life, a way of being that permeates our very existence. Healing is something to be practiced constantly, not just when we are ill. Moreover, the shamanic tradition of healing does not limit itself to healing of the physical body, but rather involves the maintenance of the harmony and balance of the universe. We must consciously make contact with all life, see our life in all things, so that life and health are embedded within our hearts.

Upon our first meeting Don José spoke of our mother the earth, who nourishes and speaks to our heart. The shaman learns to listen with their heart as well as their ears, and thus shamanism, as a healing art, makes a person whole and complete, a whole system integrated fully to the surrounding environment. Shamanism focuses on all life as being majestically and mysteriously inter-related and sacred. Plants, rocks, two- and four- legged creatures all have personal identities with whom the shaman develops a personal relationship. When the shaman prays, he prays not only for himself but also for his sacred relatives: our mother the earth, our father the sun, our grandfather and giver of light the fire, our grandmothers the eagle and the winged ones. Don José often told me never to forget that my relatives are the earth, sky, rivers, birds, animals, stones, gems, mountains, caves, springs and lakes. According to various shamanic mythologies, there was a time when paradise existed and all life was one. For example, fire communicated freely with people. Now this is lost and for this reason the shaman acts as a bridge, drawing upon lost lines of communication with all life that surrounds him both visibly and invisibly. Shamans thus act as intermediaries between people and other life forms: the gods and goddesses and all creatures who co-inhabit the earth. Shamans also have the ability to transform themselves into a spirit entity, almost as if they had the key to the process of metamorphosis. Thus the role of a shaman has been vital to the community in which he lives, as he acts as a vital link to the surrounding world.

Shamanism as a healing art seeks to maintain or restore balance, both for the individual and for the planet. All life is ultimately one, and the responsibility of a shaman is to bring the forces of balance, harmony and intuition into resonance with one another. If we celebrate our life as one with our environment, then our environment will give thanks to us with the proper amount of sunlight and rainfall.

Embedded within the traditions of shamanism and healing are techniques of achieving ecstasy. Ecstasy is sought by shamans to experience unity with all things. Ceremonial celebration for the attainment of ecstasy utilizes ancient forms of ceremony and ritual. The Huichols perform ceremonies throughout the year to maintain the delicate balance of our environment, of our universe, so that one may know one’s heart and feel the ecstatic joy emanating from one’s very being. The “Dance Of The Deer”, a most beautiful and intense sacred dance of the Huichols, is employed so the participants of the ceremonies may enter into a trance state of joy and ecstasy. The shaman and his assistant chant the ancient songs as the others dance about them. All enter together as one heart into a sacred doorway known to the Huichols as “Nierika”, face of the divine, or link to other realms of consciousness and being.

At ceremonies, the Huichol shaman calls upon their ally or spirit helper, Kauyumari, the magical deer spirit person, to assist them in the task of transporting the ceremonial participants through the nierika (spiritual doorway), into the realm of ecstatic joy and harmony. The dancers also assist the shaman as they too, like the deer, become messengers of the gods. Through ceremony, participants allow themselves to be transformed, renewed and life force itself is transmitted in a sacred manner. The shaman and participants in the ceremony are provided a medium for reaching the realm of the gods and the heart source of life itself.

Students of shamanism must endure many hardships and show much strength, both inner and outer. Pilgrimages to “places of power” (caves, springs, oceans, mountain tops) form an important aspect of shamanic healing, as pilgrims are said to receive power and many blessings for having arrived at such places.

At the same time shamanism involves what is often seen as the more mundane and down-to-earth aspects of the shaman’s day-to-day life. Many Huichol shamans, as well as many shamans from other cultures, are farmers, who in working daily with the earth, develop a special relationship with their sacred mother.

The wisdom of ceremonial celebration, pilgrimages to sacred spots and proper daily living to achieve balance between ourselves as human beings and our environment has been lost to many people of the modern world. For this reason Don José adopted me as his grandson and trained me in the ancient art of shamanism and healing. “You are an educated person who knows and understands your world”, he told me. “Now you will know our world too and use the two so that modern people may once again know what we have tried never to forget. There is a balance between our two worlds, grandson: that’s the way it is.”

“Is your heart happy?” Don Jose often asks the children at his rancho in the Mexican Sierra. “Dance with all your heart. We are following the example of the gods and the way they have taught to us. This is our life.”

Originally published in SHAMAN’S DRUM I FALL. 1985

Sierra Madre Mountains

Power Places

Pilgrimage & Huichol Shamanism

– Originally published in the Share Guide ➔

For the Huichol Indians of Mexico, shamanism is a way of life, a way of living and being on this altar we call Mother Earth. It is a way of bridging the gap between our ordinary world and the natural world, the realm of the gods – a way of tapping in to the power of that realm. In doing so, we also tap into the power we each carry inside of ourselves, the power to transform our lives and affect change in our environment. For the Huichols, this is not a matter of blind faith, but of direct experience. Making regular pilgrimages to places of power is one important way we can share in that experience.

The Huichols have a word, Kaukuyari, which translated literally means, “dreaming god
” or  “dreaming goddess.” We say that just
 after this world came into
 existence, some of the gods and 
goddesses left the spirit world 
and emerged from the ocean.
These ancient ones then walked 
over the entire earth, and 
some transformed themselves 
into mountains, lakes, springs
 and other sacred 
places, so that we could go 
back and learn from them. By making pilgrimages to these places, we recreate the journey of the gods, and in the process also learn to recreate our own lives.

“If you want to be a shaman, watch a thousand sunrises and a thousand sunsets.”

Don José Matsuwa, Huichol Shaman

During my 12-year apprenticeship with Don José Matsuwa, I made many pilgrimages to sacred places. We went to these places so I would develop my relationship with the gods and goddesses by learning to communicate with them directly.

In the beginning, Don José, who was my adopted grandfather and close companion as well as my teacher, would take me along with a small group of Huichol apprentices. We would go together to places in nature, and Don José would say, “We will learn the language of this cave. We will listen to the cave speaking in the night.” Then we would leave offerings in the cave and sleep there.

We also went to various rock formations in the Sierra Madre mountains to talk to the different rock people, and we would go to the ocean and various fresh water springs to try to learn the language of the waters. Later I would go to these places alone. During one of my vision quests, I went 5 days alone with no food or water, dreaming and learning from one particularly powerful place, the Cave of Grandmother Growth.

In order to become empowered as a shaman, you have to go where there is power. You gain empowerment by fasting and praying at these sacred places, and by receiving a dream or vision from each place. It’s like a contract: you give a prayer and offerings to the place of power, and you get to take back the power of that place. In fact, one traditional way of learning to become a Huichol shaman is by going to a place of power for 5 years in a row. But pilgrimage is for everyone, not just for shamans.

I spend much of my year at places of power, not only seeking to empower myself, but also leading other people on pilgrimage – teaching them how to make offerings and communicate with the gods, and working with the gods to help transfer the power of these places to the people. Each year, through the sponsorship of the Dance of the Deer Foundation, I lead a number of pilgrimages throughout the U.S and Europe. We go to help heal the Earth, to take power back into our lives, and to learn the language of the gods.

For the last 13 years, I’ve led summer pilgrimages here in California to Mt. Shasta, the Healing Mountain, which is famous for its power and visions among many North American Indian tribes. Last summer, I led my first pilgrimage to Alaska – to the Tsongas Mountains near the sea, where our ceremonial chanting was often answered by the calls of humpback whales. We also make an annual pilgrimage to the Pacific Ocean in Mexico, where we are joined by my Huichol grandmother, Doña Josefa Medrano, and some of our family.

“You don’t have to go far to find a place of power. You can take a place near you and make it sacred.”

When we go on pilgrimage in the Huichol tradition, we make prayer arrows and leave them as an offering, along with a candle and some cornmeal or chocolate. Then we verbalize what it is we’re asking for. Generally, we’ll ask for a vision or for good luck, but you can also ask for something very specific such as a new job, or happiness in your marriage. You call aloud to the spirit of the place, communicating from your heart. We say, “You pray as if your life depended on it.” You leave your offerings, and you might also lie down and try to have a dream or vision of that place. Then you use that vision to help transform your life.
There are places of power everywhere. In California, there’s the Pacific Ocean – we call her Tate Haramara, Grandmother Ocean, the birthplace of all life. There’s Mr. St. Helena in Sonoma County, Cone Peak and Pico Blanco in Big Sur, Mt. Shasta, and many more. But you don’t have to go far to find a place of power. You can take a place near you and make it sacred. The Huichols make their back yards sacred places. They build a temple, an altar, and leave offerings for the gods there.

A pilgrimage is something you do once in a while, but for everyday existence, you can go to your personal place: an altar in your home; a tree; a large stone. These become places of power with the energy we give them. Don José told me the whole Earth is a place of power. He used to say, “Love the gods as you love another person. They’re your ancestors, your relatives. People love everything else and they forget the gods.” Through pilgrimage and prayer, the ancient ones can be remembered and teach us their mysteries and wisdom.